Did Somebody Say Ethnic Partition? A Critique of Žižek on Kosovo and the Balkans (Part 2)

Notes from the LeftEast editors: This is the second out of four parts of the article of Dragan Plavšić, which offers a critique of the recent book of Slavoy Zizek and Agon Hamza ” “From Myth to Symptom: The Case of Kosovo”. The first part of the article can be read here, the third one here, and the last here.

Žižek: For ethno-centric reasoning! His road to partition

In From Myth to Symptom, we encountered Žižek’s call for the building of “TRANSNATIONAL political movements and institutions” to constrain capital. This call certainly cuts against the grain of national-insular thinking that our ruling classes are so assiduous in fostering. As such, it appears to clear a path towards a properly anti-nationalist, or internationalist, perspective, one that has potentially positive implications for another issue, the national question in the Balkans. Of course, a great deal of careful thought would still be required to carve out a meaningfully concrete way of applying such a perspective to nationally divisive issues, but at least the promise seems to be there.

Nevertheless, this is a classic case of promise lost, for Žižek has long since set off in a quite different direction. An early insight into his sense of direction can be gleaned from ‘The Morning After’, an article he wrote in March 2001 in which, in passing, he praised the West for its role in partitioning Bosnia and recommended the very same “Bosnianisation of Kosovo” that we have just seen Hamza deride.[19]

Žižek wrote, “The West was wise enough to accept the de facto division of Bosnia into three separate entities, with the result that at least a semblance of normal life is returning there. Why not accept it in Kosovo, where the tension between Albanians and Serbs is incomparably stronger and deeper than among the ethnic groups in Bosnia? The answer, of course, is that the West does not want to abandon its nostalgic dream of the “multiethnic” Yugoslavia: Kosovo is the last piece of ex-Yugoslavia where this dream can still be enacted.”

After the Bosnian Spring of this year, there are few who would now agree that anything even approaching a semblance of normality has returned to Bosnia. Moreover, with the partition-lite agreement of Kosovo last year, the West has, to all intents and purposes, implemented Žižek’s plan for the “Bosnianisation of Kosovo”, and thus dispensed rather readily with its alleged commitment to the nostalgic dream of a “multiethnic” Yugoslavia.

That was in 2001. More recently, Žižek has gone even further, swept away, or so it seems, by something of a passion for partition. From Myth to Symptom appeared in February 2013. Two months later, in late April, an interview Žižek gave to Agon Hamza in September 2009, entitled Kosovo Interview, was uploaded to YouTube by “Slavoj Žižek Videos”.[20]

In this interview, Žižek sought to address a “logical” problem that allegedly bedevils the Balkans, and which, he claimed, was in desperate need of “clarifying”. In fact, so offended was his keen sense of logic by the ‘disordered’, ‘illogical’ and ‘unstable’ character of its multiethnic states that Žižek proceeded to advocate nothing less than the partition of the Balkans into ‘ordered’, ‘logical’ and ‘stable’ monoethnic states.

Thus, on Kosovo, Žižek proposed to Hamza, “Here maybe foreign help is needed to prevent explosions. Why not give a little bit of that Mitrovica and so on [in North Kosovo, where Serbs live – DP] to Serbia, maybe they can give you a little bit of the south-west of Serbia [where Albanians live – DP]….Wouldn’t this be a much more, how to put it, a logical stable world. I think this problem is not insolvable [sic] in this sense. It can be done.”[21]

Note here that Žižek went one step further than he went in 2001 when he advised the West to ‘bosnianise’ Kosovo; he now advocated full-scale partition. But note too Žižek’s casually approving reference to the possible need for “foreign help”, which we will make more of later.

Thus it is, also, that on Kosovo and neighbouring Albania Žižek proposed the creation of a Greater Albania, “When you have Kosovo and Albania, the same nation, I mean, logically, there is no cultural tradition that would separate you and so on, I see nothing bad in thinking, why not unite the two?”

To fully appreciate the partitionist implications of this train of thought, we need to see what else Žižek had in store for the Balkans.

On Macedonia and Bulgaria, he had this to say, “If what they [the Macedonians – DP] really want, as I hear, some kind of unification with Bulgaria, then I would be brutal enough to say that this kind of restructuring of larger Albania, larger united Macedonia/Bulgaria, with all the necessary friendly, not brutally imposed, exchanges of territory with Serbia, what is bad about it, my God? I’m a pragmatic here.”

Two points cry out to be made about these Greater Albanian and Greater Bulgarian scenarios.

Firstly, one wonders who exactly Žižek had been listening to in Macedonia, for it is by no means clear that Macedonians yearn for unification with Bulgaria.

And secondly, we feel duty bound to ask what in this scenario he thought should become of the Macedonian Albanians, a quarter of the population. Žižek does not tell us, but if we apply his own brutally pragmatic, partitionist logic, one and only one conclusion must follow: that he envisaged the partition of Macedonia, with the Macedonian Albanians joining Greater Albania rather than a Greater Bulgaria in which they would be non-Slavic and non-Christian cultural outcasts.

This, then, is what Žižek apparently meant by logical clarity or, as he put it, a “kind of clarifying the situation, not clarifying in this ethnic cleansing or whatever, but clarifying in the sense of introducing some kind of a more, let me put it in this way, logical order.”

This insistent appeal to ‘logic’ to justify his grand plan is potentially beguiling. But what exactly is this logic? Is it not, in fact, the self-same logic of “ethno-centric reasoning” that we have just seen him reject? Is it not this very same logic now driven to its logical conclusion with “brutal” Žižekian pragmatism?[22]

It is surely no surprise, then, that Hamza felt obliged to ask of Žižek, “So, basically, your solution is ethnic states?” Žižek’s reply, however, was a surprise, and a classic piece of self-denying sophistry, “No, I’m not for ethnically clean states. All I’m concerned about is how to create conditions for future, peaceful coexistence”, a reply accompanied by a distinctly defensive cri de coeur, “My God, listen, if there is a person who doesn’t care about ethnicity….it’s me.”

But of course Žižek is for ethnically clean states, even if he treats them as the means to a desirable end. In fact, this line of argument – that “peaceful coexistence” and a “logical, stable world” will more likely prevail when sufficiently ‘clean’ borders are drawn between nations – is a clichéd nationalist fallacy only too familiar in the Balkans. For there is no good reason to believe that Žižek’s plan of partition, like all such plans, would bring about the end he desires.

Žižek: “What is bad about it [partition], my God?”

This presumably rhetorical question, which Žižek posed above in his Kosovo Interview, nevertheless cries out for a response, so let us see what is so bad about partition.

We have already seen one example – to add to the explicit examples he has given – of what must necessarily follow from Žižek’s clarifying logic of partition, that is, the partition of the Macedonian Albanians to enable them to join a Greater Albania. But more such examples must surely follow.

Above, we saw Žižek go one step further and advocate the full-scale partition of Kosovo. So why not do the same with Bosnia? Perhaps the Bosnian Serbs should join Serbia, and the Bosnian Croats Croatia? But why stop there? Perhaps the Hungarians of Serbia and Romania should join Hungary? Perhaps Vladimir Putin should be applauded after all, for applying Žižekian logical clarity by partitioning Ukraine and pursuing those happy ends we know as “peaceful coexistence” and a “logical, stable world”? And if it is objected that none of this in fact follows, we do have to ask why not – if, that is, Žižek’s ‘logic’ is to be true to itself.

The sweeping terror of this line of thinking speaks for itself as it envisages, in practice, the creation of a host of monoethnic Greater Nation States across the Balkans. But no less terrifying is that this was also the nationalist logic of the bloody war in ex-Yugoslavia, one which Žižek here takes to its ‘logical’, Balkan-wide conclusion.

The war in ex-Yugoslavia inevitably raises the crucial question of how Žižek imagines partition might be achieved, a question he touches on, albeit in passing, in his Kosovo Interview.

In this context, let us read again, this time with a different eye, a quotation from Žižek we have already cited, “I would be brutal enough to say that this kind of restructuring of larger Albania, larger united Macedonia/Bulgaria, with all the necessary friendly, not brutally imposed, exchanges of territory with Serbia, what is bad about it, my God? I’m a pragmatic here.”

One can hardly avoid being struck here by the jarring juxtaposition of “I would be brutal enough to say” with “the necessary friendly, not brutally imposed, exchanges of territory” that Žižek wishes us to believe will be possible in this scenario. Žižek’s personal confession of brutality in proposing partition undercuts and undermines, at a stroke, his wholly wishful belief that partition is achievable in a “friendly”, non-brutal way. This juxtaposition becomes sharper still when, as we have seen above, Žižek attempts to convince us that his “clarifying” logic will “not [be] clarifying in this ethnic cleansing or whatever”, only to see him blithely concede that “foreign help” might well be needed “to prevent explosions”.

What much of this betrays, and tempts us to ask, is whether Žižek truly believes what he says. In such a situation, does he really believe that Balkan states like Serbia (not to mention the others) would resist the temptation to use military power to partition as much as possible in their favour? Does he really believe that the horrors of the war over Yugoslavia – the horrors of mass ethnic cleansing, rape and massacre – would be avoided? In short, does he really believe that partition is achievable with flower power, not gun power?

But if it is the case that Žižek truly believes what he says, then he is guilty of a naïve brutality that seemingly disdains the evidence of history, and not just in former Yugoslavia. No less disdainful of history is his wishful belief that a more “stable world” will emerge in the wake of partition.

Here, a little history can go a long way.

The partition of India in 1947, even with the “foreign help” of the British, was notoriously bloody and brutal, and did not bring stability. Today, let us recall, India and Pakistan remain at loggerheads, with nuclear weapons targeted at one another.

In Cyprus, in 1974, Turkey could not resist intervening militarily in response to ultra-nationalist Greek Cypriots who wanted enosis, or union, with Greece. Civil war, mass ethnic cleansing and partition followed. Today, the Turkish north and Greek south remain deeply hostile.

And let us, of course, not forget the partition of Palestine between Israel and a Palestinian statelet in the West Bank and Gaza, a perpetual source of violent instability, even with the “separation wall” the Israelis have built between them.

This little history suggests that rivalry between nations is rooted in something deeper than the mere existence of different nations, whether intermixed or not. In fact, it suggests that its roots can be traced to the relentless economic and political competition between modern states which encourages people to coalesce with like others around ‘their own’ states in order to gain some degree of apparent protection from, and advantage over, others who are doing the same.

This system of competing states is what we know as capitalism, of course, and here we need to appreciate that capital’s competitive logic expresses itself, on the one hand, by means of the ideology of multiculturalism Žižek has critiqued, as multinational capitals compete over foreign markets they have to ‘respect’ in order to capture, but also, on the other hand, by means of the mutually hostile nation-states that litter the globe, whose role remains the advancement of their capitals at home and abroad. In this way, we can begin to see how multiculturalism and nationalism find their respective parallels in the twin aspects of the neo-imperial ‘conflict management’ mindset, the ideology of ‘multiethnicism’ and the practice of ethnic partition.[23]

The horrendous implications of Žižek’s partition plan are clear enough, then. But it is equally clear that, if his lead on this issue were to be followed, it becomes difficult – if not impossible – to underestimate the catastrophic political damage Žižek’s partition plan would inflict on the embryonic Balkan Left.

Žižek: Partition as perdition for the Balkan Left

Žižek’s partition plan is a nationalist plan, even if he does not appear to favour any one nation over another (indeed, as we have seen, he advocates, where relevant, the seemingly equitable principle of mutual territorial exchange). His plan is therefore better viewed as a pan-nationalist one in which each nation has its own Greater Nation-State, gathering its otherwise dispersed co-nationals into neatly homogeneous clumps that are free, at last, of destabilising ‘foreign bodies’.

It is not difficult to perceive the mind-bending incompatibility between this approach to the national question and the support we saw Žižek give to building “TRANSNATIONAL political movements and institutions” to constrain capital. For it is surely ludicrous to expect that transnational anti-capitalist movements can be built when pursuing the pan-nationalist project of building Greater Nation-States.

Indeed, a moment’s reflection should lead us to see that the struggle against neo-liberal austerity across the Balkans, for example, would likely be decimated if, because of partition, attentions were to be focused on competing nationalist claims. What Žižek proffers with his left hand, then, he whips away with his right; or it might just be that his right hand does not know what his left hand is doing.

Here we can begin to sense the catastrophic impact Žižek’s pan-nationalist Greater Nation State perspective would have on the Balkan Left, if his lead on this issue were to be followed.

At a stroke, the various Balkan Lefts would become, in practice, cheerleaders for their own nations, cheerleaders for national homogeneity, antagonists of the foreign ‘enemy within’, and ultimately, therefore, cheerleaders for their own ruling classes. In short, the Balkan Left would swiftly lose sight of its true enemy, thereby signalling the end of anything that might be called an emancipatory politics.

In fact, rather than bringing politics back to the forefront of these issues, as Žižek argued in From Myth to Symptom we must do in response to the logic of “ethno-centric reasoning” (as well as, more generally, in response to liberal multiculturalism’s preoccupation with ethnicity, for example), his grand partition plan threatens the very opposite, to drown the politics of the Left in that notorious quagmire that is the question of national identity.

As Badiou has put it, “When politics strays into identities, it is lost. It sets the ground for nothing other than wars, civil wars and horrors.”[24] Quite so, though we cannot resist the temptation of adding that Žižek has not so much here strayed into identities as marched headlong into them.

In any event, even if the Balkan Left were not to follow Žižek’s lead on this question, the nationalist fervour that partition is certain to ignite and inflame would so pervert and disfigure the political atmosphere that the Left’s presently small voice in national life would shrink further or even shrivel, at least for the foreseeable future.

In one way or another, then, Žižek’s road to partition would surely be the road to perdition for the Balkan Left.

(To be continued)

Kosovo_Partition_2



[20] Kosovo Interview is available in three parts at https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLz-Cb-3H1Xd_U2L8MrE2AUh_t3Br_6MW5, published on 23.04.2013. All quotations are from Parts 2 and 3, and are as verbatim as audibility allows. ‘The West wants a decaffeinated Kosovo’, 08.09.2009, a much truncated transcript of Kosovo Interview, can be found at http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/the-west-wants-a-decaffeinated-kosovo

[21] In proposing the partition of Kosovo, Žižek joins the dubious company of figures such as Ivica Dačić, the present leader of what used to be Milošević’s Socialist Party of Serbia, and the Dobrica Ćosić, the recently deceased nationalist novelist and former President of rump Yugoslavia under Milošević, among others.  Unfortunately, Žižek is not the only figure on the Left to support Kosovo’s partition. The US radical, Noam Chomsky, has done so too; ironically so, given his Internet spat with Žižek last year. (We have criticised Chomsky on this point elsewhere, see note 38 in Part 4). These three propose partitioning off north Kosovo to join Serbia, but without the corresponding exchange of territory Žižek proposes.

[22] At the same time, Žižek tells us in his Kosovo Interview that “the task is not to reject the explicit goal of multiculturalism. My God, if you say in abstract term[s], we want different culture[s] to live in peace, respect each other and so on, my God, who wouldn’t like this?” But one cannot resist the suspicion that Žižek’s choice of full-scale partition as the means to achieve this multicultural goal is to some extent prompted by a desire to épater la bourgeoisie multiculturelle. We have no particular objection to scandalising the bourgeoisie, multicultural or otherwise, but we do object when it is done to the detriment of the fundamental principles of the Left, as we argue below.

[23] And just as there is ceaseless tension in the West between nationalist and multiculturalist attitudes, a parallel tension exists between ethnic partitionist and multiethnic strategies in the imperial context. Lest we be misunderstood, we should also here clarify that the relationship between capitalism and both nationalism and multiculturalism does not mean that these two ideologies are thereby denuded of all progressive political content. Nationalism was key, of course, to the great anti-colonial struggles of the past (even if nationalism has ultimately proved to be a dead-end), while multiculturalism has been one means by which oppressed minorities have struggled for dignity and respect in their new homes (even if the state adopts multiculturalism in order to domesticate it with its ‘official’ seal of approval). The Left needs to be both supportive and critical here as required by concrete circumstances

[24] Philosophy and the Event, Cambridge and Malden, Polity Press, 2013, p.27

 

7 Responses to Did Somebody Say Ethnic Partition? A Critique of Žižek on Kosovo and the Balkans (Part 2)

  1. MC says:

    Žižek changed his mind about Bosnia few times, and at one point he most positively proposed the full-scale partition: http://balkans.aljazeera.net/video/recite-al-jazeeri-slavoj-zizek

    Then he changed the tune again, and championed the protests in February 2014…

    • Dragan says:

      Thanks very much for this link, which fully confirms the argument I have been putting here. I only wish I had listened to this earlier! You are also a step or two ahead of me on the Bosnian Spring. In the final part of my article, Part 4, which should appear in a few days, I do indeed look at how Žižek, as you rightly say, “changed his tune again” and suddenly dropped all talk of partition….

      • aaaa says:

        I distinctly remember him explicitly condemning the partition of Bosnia, though. I remember him using the words “de facto” and “Republika Srpska” if that helps you localise the source (it was a video).

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